Volkswagen Golf GTI: which generation beats them all?
“Whereas the Mk1 is always eager, always ready to play, the Mk2 is not like that”
Over the past 40 years, the Golf GTI has got faster, classier and more refined. But it has also got bigger, heavier and more complex. So which of its seven generations is the greatest Golf GTI of all?
It has always fascinated me how the cars that are broadly believed to have invented the categories in which they sit rarely, if ever, actually did.
The Land Rover was not the first off-roader, and nor was the Range Rover the first luxury off-roader. The Renault Espace was not the first MPV, and nor was any one of the BMW 2002 Turbo, Porsche 911 Turbo or Saab 99 Turbo the first turbocharged car to go on sale. And not only was the Volkswagen Golf GTI not the first hatchback, it wasn’t the first hot hatchback, either.
And yet while we struggle to remember the Simca 1100 Ti and even the Renault 5 Alpine, 40 years after it first came to the UK, the Golf GTI has become probably the second most recognised model name after the Porsche 911. ‘Iconic’ is probably one of the most overused words in the road tester’s lexicon, but if only a handful of cars on sale deserve it, the Golf surely is one of them.
There is a lovely little lie concerning why this might be: the Golf GTI succeeded because it combined the hatchback practicality everyone needed with the performance everyone wanted. Simples. Except that, were this the case, I’d now be waxing lyrical over the Autobianchi A112 Abarth and you wouldn’t be thinking ‘Auto-what?’
Truth is, the Golf did something the earlier French and Italian hot hatches did not: it worked. In an era when sporting cars were inexactly constructed, temperamental beasts prone to converting themselves in heaps of ferric oxide at the sign of bad weather, the Golf not only offered fun and practicality, it also placed them within an impregnable shell. Thirty years ago, I took my already elderly Mk1 GTI to a stag party in Scotland. The temperature sank so much overnight that by morning I was the proud owner of a Golf-shaped ice sculpture. And while my mates primed their chokes, pumped their throttles, churned their starters and cursed their cars, I just opened the door, twisted the key, heard my fuel-injected engine fire instantly and went smugly back inside for breakfast while the car defrosted itself.
So 40 years after the Golf GTI, we thought it time to revisit the genre with a mission simply to decide which is best. There have been seven generations to date, but for reasons that will become clear in a separate story (top right), we had few qualms about skipping versions three and four. Six was also left in the lorry because we felt it sufficiently close to five to add little to the debate. Which leaves those you see before you, the Mk1, Mk2, Mk5 and the newly revised version of the Mk7 to tell the story of the world’s most enduring hot hatch, and help us decide which we’d most like to take home. Happily, all are owned by Volkswagen and maintained irrespective of cost so can be counted upon to be truly representative of how these cars ought to be.
No trouble knowing where to start. The Mk1 sits there, quiet and humble yet with an aura beaming out so strong that it blinds your view of its offspring. You are drawn to it naturally and inevitably.
Inside and out, it is delightfully, deliciously simple. And small. Compared with a new Golf GTI, it is almost half a metre shorter, 16cm narrower and, most astonishing of all, half a tonne lighter. There are entire cars that weigh less than that. Our example is a late car so has a 1.8-litre single-cam motor pushing out 112bhp, 2bhp more than the 1.6 original but with a useful additional slug of mid-range torque. Such outputs might seem mere trifles today, but for family hatchbacks 40 years ago, they were a new level. And remember the weight, and lack thereof.
There’s not much scope for achieving the perfect driving position because the wheel is fixed but it’s comfortable enough and the interior logically arranged and childishly easy to use. Grab that golf ball gearlever and go.
It’s quick. I’ve estimated a conservative 0-60mph time of 8.8sec but I’ve seen plenty of claims that it’s faster, one suggesting an 8.2sec capability. But it’s the smoothness of the engine you remember most, combined with its willingness to rev. There’s more character in this engine note than in an entire showroom of turbocharged Golf motors, backed by a brilliantly swift and precise gearchange.
But it is somewhat betrayed by its handling. Purists will talk about the feel of its unassisted steering, but I remember more the terribly slow rack required to keep helm efforts under control. And although it will happily cock a rear wheel if you lift off in a corner, this is no Peugeot 205 GTi: there’s not much grip and then just as many shades of understeer as you can count. And then there are the brakes: tiny discs up front, small drums at the back and, on right-hand-drive cars, the master cylinder on the wrong side of the car. It’s a car that’s superb to drive up to around 80% effort, but thereafter it soon loses composure.
By contrast, the Mk2 is never seen with so much as a hair out of place. Like every new generation of Golf, it’s bigger than the one that went before, but the word that springs most readily to mind when describing it is ‘mature’. It is a far more complete car than the Mk1, quieter and more comfortable by far, not to mention more spacious and with a totally transformed perception of quality. And they are as solid as they feel, capable of shouldering a quarter of a million miles or more without serious complaint. When they were new, I used to look on in envy at my city kid mates, who considered a Mk2 GTI as much part of the junior executive uniform as their red braces.
But there is another truth here, less palatable and less frequently spoken of in the day. There are two sides to maturity: one to be functional and reliable and the other to be, well, a trifle dull. And, at least compared with the Mk1, it is. To some, this will seem like purest sacrilege, but I can report only as I find. Whatever the figures might have said at the time, the Mk 2 is slower than its parent, and with barely any extra power but a slug more weight, it would be strange were it any other way. It’s far neater up to a higher limit in the corners, and its sheer unflappability won it praise in the day, but simply being more capable and competent merely makes it a better-handling car, not necessarily a more entertaining one. Whereas the rather more rough and ready Mk1 is always eager, always ready to play even in a somewhat more shambolic way, the Mk2 is not like that. There is a light-hearted streak in there somewhere, but it’s more cerebral, less slapstick, and it’s not with you all the time but needs to be switched on. I’m not saying it’s better or worse – I’d rather drive a Mk1 and own a Mk2 – but it is different.
But not as different as the Mk5. The temptation is to look at the dozen-year gap between the demise of the Mk2 and the birth of the Mk5 and put the fact that it feels like it came from another world down to that alone. But that’s only part of the truth. The perhaps more interesting fact is that the Mk5 can be seen almost as VW’s apology for all the rubbish GTIs that peppered the intervening years. This was the moment VW decided it was time to do more than mere justice to the GTI name and to honour it instead.
Yet of them all, the Mk5 was the car I remembered least about and whose role in these proceedings was the least clear. I’d driven to the photo location in the Mk7 and fully expected the Mk5 to feel like a substantially more rubbish version thereof.
Well, I got that wrong. The Mk5 is superb. Of course, with its 2.0-litre turbo engine and near- 200bhp output, performance is unrecognisable compared with its elder relatives, but the figures place it approximately halfway between them and the Mk7 and that’s not how it feels at all. The Mk7 is quicker, but not much. The Mk5 feels properly rapid, super-strong in the mid-range and almost devoid of turbo lag. More interesting still, if you try to hoof it around in the corners, it really responds. Inevitably, grip levels are several streets ahead of either older car, but so is its willingness to adjust its line according to the whim of your right foot. Yes, all that extra weight means the feel coming back through the wheel and chassis is slightly muted, but you can steer this car on the throttle in a way that the Mk1 cannot be driven and the Mk2 chooses not to be driven. It is, in short, more fun than either, and before I drove them, I’d have bet a billion on that not being the case.
And the Mk7? It is probably the most coherent re-imagining of the original GTI philosophy there has been in these past four decades. It plays the everyday card even better today than did the Mk2 30 years ago: it is such a sophisticated, high-quality item, comprising a superb driving environment with class-leading ride and refinement yet, when the time comes, it proves to be both faster and even more fun to drive than the unexpectedly brilliant Mk5. The operative word for this car is ‘complete’, which, unlike ‘mature’, should in no way be equated with ‘boring’. Honestly, of everything I can think a car such as this should be expected to do, the Mk7 does it to a world-class standard.
So which is best? So often in these ‘old meets new’ stories, it is the modern cars that come off second best, because whatever their advantages on paper, they rarely if ever have the character of their lighter, simpler, more focused fathers.
For once, this is not one of those stories. We know the Golf GTI story over the past 40 years is one of magic captured, lost and rediscovered. But it was only by bringing together the cars responsible for the first and third acts that a clear picture of how they fare relative to each other emerges. The old cars are very cool, but Mk1s are expensive now and sufficiently limited in scope these days to be purely recreational vehicles. I might hanker after a Mk2 for sentimental reasons, but shorn of the need to perform every day and therefore of the thing it does best, it seems a little marooned. Maybe a more powerful 16-valver would be better, but I never liked them more in the day and doubt I would now.
So it’s down to the two more modern cars and here the choice is simpler: the Mk7 is easily the better car, and if all other things were equal, it would win at a canter. But they’re not: the biggest difference between these two is not measured by power or performance but price. And whereas a brand-new Golf GTI like this costs £27,950, a clean, low-mileage Mk5 can be yours for around £5000. That’s more than 80% of the ability of the best front-drive hatch in the world for less than 20% of the money. And if that’s not a bargain, I don’t know what is.
Volkswagen Golf GTI Mk 1 1800
Engine 4 cyls in line, 1781cc, petrol Power 112bhp at 5800rpm Torque 105lb ft at 3500rpm Gearbox 5-spd manual Kerb weight 860kg Power-to-weight ratio 130bhp per tonne 0-62mph 8.8sec Top speed 114mph Length 3815mm Width 1628mm Height 1394mm Wheelbase 2400mm
Volkswagen Golf GTI Mk 2 8v
Engine 4 cyls in line, 1781cc, petrol Power 112bhp at 5500rpm Torque 115lb ft at 3100rpm Gearbox 5-spd manual Kerb weight 907kg Power-to-weight ratio 123bhp per tonne 0-62mph 8.7sec Top speed 118mph Length 3985mm Width 1680mm Height 1405mm Wheelbase 2475mm
Volkswagen Golf GTI Mk 5
Engine 4 cyls in line, 1984cc, turbo, petrol Power 197bhp at 5100rpm Torque 207lb ft at 1800rpm Gearbox 6-spd manual Kerb weight 1336kg Power-to-weight ratio 147bhp per tonne 0-62mph 7.3sec Top speed 146mph Length 4216mm Width 1759mm Height 1466mm Wheelbase 2578mm
Volkswagen Golf GTI Mk 7
Engine 4 cyls in line, 1984cc, turbo, petrol Power 227bhp at 5000rpm Torque 273lb ft at 1600rpm Gearbox 6-spd manual Kerb weight 1376kg Power-to-weight ratio 165bhp per tonne 0-62mph 6.2sec Top speed 155mph Length 4267mm Width 1791mm Height 1443mm Wheelbase 2631mm
Source: Autocar Online